Federal Court's "Vegan Discrimination" Decision Reminds Employers Not To Jump To Conclusions Regarding What May Or May Not Constitute A Religious Belief

by Perkins Coie

Prior to the termination of her employment, Sakile Chenzira worked for more than a decade as a customer service representative at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center (the Hospital).  In December 2010, the Hospital fired Chenzira because she refused to be vaccinated against the flu. 

Chenzira, who is a vegan (a person who does not ingest any animal or animal by-products), sued the Hospital, claiming, among other things, that her firing constituted religious discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The Hospital moved to dismiss Chenzira's religious discrimination claim, arguing that veganism does not qualify as a religion but rather is "no more than a dietary preference or social philosophy." 

A federal district court in Ohio recently sided with Chenzira, refusing to dismiss her religious discrimination claim.  Noting that within the context of a motion to dismiss, it merely needed to determine whether Chenzira had alleged a "plausible" claim, the court found that Chenzira had met her burden.  (Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children's Hosp. Med. Ctr., S.D. Ohio, No. 1:11-cv-00917, (Dec. 27, 2012)).

In reaching its finding, the court considered both an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulation and an essay that Chenzira submitted to the court entitled "The Biblical Basis of Veganism."  The EEOC regulation provides that where an issue exists as to whether or not a practice or belief is religious, "the Commission [defines] religious practices to include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views." (29 C.F.R. 1605.1)  The court found that it was plausible that Chenzira could subscribe to veganism "with a sincerity equating that of traditional religious views."  As for the essay entitled "The Biblical Basis of Veganism," the court found that although EEOC regulations make it clear that it is not necessary that a religious group espouse a belief before the particular belief can qualify as religious (29 C.F.R. 1605.1), the fact that Chenzira was not alone in articulating her view lent credence to her position. 

Employer Take Aways:

  • Resist the urge to reject out of hand an employee's request for religious accommodation simply because the employee is not a member of an "organized religion."
  • Remember that the scope of what constitutes "religion" under Title VII is broad and may be somewhat counter-intuitive. 
  • Remember that for purposes of Title VII, religion includes not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, but also religious beliefs that are:
    • new;
    • uncommon;
    • not part of a formal church or sect;
    • only subscribed to by a small number of people; or
    • seemingly illogical or unreasonable to others.
  • The EEOC takes the position that an employee’s belief or practice can be "religious" under Title VII even if the employee is affiliated with a religious group that does not espouse or recognize that individual’s belief or practice or if few or no other people adhere to it. 
  • Title VII’s protections extend to those who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs.
  • Under Title VII, religious beliefs include theistic beliefs (i.e., those that include a belief in God); and non-theistic "moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views."

An Additional Take Away:

The court's ruling in the Chenzira case notwithstanding, employers are not required to accept at face value every assertion of religious belief made by employees. Beliefs are not protected under Title VII merely because they are strongly held. The EEOC has acknowledged that religion typically concerns "ultimate ideas" about "life, purpose, and death," and that social, political or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences, are not “religious” beliefs protected by Title VII. An employer may, therefore, make limited inquiry into the facts and circumstances of an employee’s claim that the belief or practice at issue is religious and sincerely held; and if the employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief or practice, it may seek additional supporting information (EEOC Compliance Manual Section 12).

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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